Over a decade ago, when I first began therapy and discovered the names of my demons, my therapist said to me that my "work will never be done. The goal is not to cure you because these are not things you cure. The goal is for you to learn how you react to things and develop the skills you need to develop to remain in control." It's the thing that those of us who live with anxieties hate to hear but must admit: this is how we are. This is how we always will be. It won't ever stop - but it can get better. My demons cannot be exiled, but they can be tamed.
I liked the fact that she called it my "work." Actually, more often she called it "our work," because her part in the matter was to teach me how to do this work. It truly is a full-time job to internally monitor my reactions to things. Fortunately, by this point, it is work that is, a majority of the time, passive. It's the work a smoke alarm does in your home. You put the battery in the smoke alarm and forget about it, unless and until it screeches out its warning that there's an awful lot of smoke - and where there's smoke, there's fire, so you had better do something lest your house burn down. Same thing. My internal monitor sits there, vigilant yet passive, until something sets it off. Then, it screeches out a warning and I know I have to react.
I haven't written about my demons in awhile, because they haven't tripped the alarm in some time. In the past few meetings of the writer's group I belong to, I've shared that I have made no progress at all on my planned book about dealing with OCD, Social Anxiety and Depression, because they have not been at the surface of my awareness. It's difficult enough to write about them when they are causing mayhem in my life, but it's damn near impossible to write about them when they aren't. There's nothing to say, no story to tell. It's as if I have to be in pain to write about pain. Well, for the past few months, the waters have been still. So still, in fact, that I almost forgot about my demons.
When I became unemployed for the first time in 14 years this summer, I was ready for the demons to make an appearance. Despite the fact that the company which had employed me all that time was shutting down and it was absolutely no reflection on my abilities or my work ethic, I just knew that my demons would relish the opportunity to remind me what a failure I am. It would have been an obvious thing for them to latch onto, but they didn't. And I'll admit I was very pleased with myself that I have come far enough in ten or so years of "work" that I could recognize that potential "fire hazard" and guard against it before it ever occurred. That's not to say I wasn't upset or even somewhat depressed at being out of work - that's only natural, especially in our society where we are often defined by our careers. But I didn't sink into the bleak despair that I might have had it happened a few years earlier; I didn't give the demons a chance to wreak their havoc.
As a result, rather than sit around moping and hurting and beating myself up, I found an new job within about two weeks. Or, so I thought. As I've said to those with whom I have since shared the story, I had the unique experience of having been interviewed for, hired for, traveled to across the state to be trained for, even received business cards for a job that turned out not to exist. I went from the extreme high of being able to announce to friends and family that I was back among the gainfully employed to the extreme low of realizing that no, I am still unemployed. Now this was certainly where my demons would usually chime in: "You see! It was all a set up! All designed to make you look bad! They're laughing at you, Bryan! You're a failure! You don't deserve a good job!" But yet again, I found myself on guard against their insidiousness, almost without realizing it. I knew what to expect from them and was ready, and they never had the chance to strike.
I have since gone into business with my former boss and mentor to create a new marketing company. You'll hear more about Independence Marketing Services in the very near future. We're taking what we know how to do well and "rebooting," after a fashion. Of course, like any other startup, it's hard work and long hours for little pay. Once we get the ball rolling, that will change, but overcoming the initial inertia is a challenge. I am pleased to be working and excited for the possibilities this venture presents. But there has been a price, which I really only discovered last night.
With all of my efforts and attention being directed towards building the new company, I haven't been as vigilant in listening to my internal monitor. My demons have begun finding small little cracks to chip away at - small chinks that have been quietly yet inexorably clawing away at until they can break through like an army of zombies bursting through windows boarded up against their approach. They manage to get an arm through here, a head through there; they push and pound and scratch until the boards give way and they are in.
The first signs that they were finding ways in showed up when catching myself lying awake at night going into mild panic attacks over paying my bills. Right now, Unemployment Compensation helps and will remain a help as we build the business to a place where steady income begins flowing; but it's not really enough and it will not last forever. I have savings and I budget wisely enough that I needn't really start to worry for another month or so. But the self-doubt: "You're not good enough to make this work. You're going to fail. You don't deserve success..."
I fight back by reminding myself that we have already completed one successful project for one client, and we have gotten paid for it - we have made a small profit on our very first venture! It was a client that I brought to the table and a project that I managed! On top of that, we're building a second project for another client, and have at least one more on the immediate horizon. It IS working. But the demons are relentless.
Last night, for the first time in a long time, they showed up in full force. I was invited to join some friends for a bonfire at one friend's house for "drinks and philosophical conversation," the kind of thing I love, as anyone who has gotten into an esoteric debate with me about life, reality, theology, existentialism, etc. has discovered. I immediately said "count me in." Of course, the old transportation situation came up: I don't drive, and our meeting place would not have been within walking distance. So, we began figuring out the logistics of getting me to and from the festivities. And then it hit.
"You better not leave your house! Something might happen to it - a fire, a burglary, vandalism - and you don't have the money to fix it if that happens! And you won't have the money, because you're not going to be successful in your new business!" My stomach lurched, my head swam, and I wanted to run away, bury my head and cry. I was sitting there, working out transportation with a friend on Twitter, perfectly fine, and within seconds I was in the midst of a full-fledged anxiety attack, as strong as any I've ever had. My hands were trembling, I was nearly hyper-ventilating, and I was once again hating myself for going through this.
I begged my friend's forgiveness, explained that I was in high panic mode, and politely backed out of the evening. Then came the embarrassment. How could I let this happen again? I'd done so well, gone for so long without an event, and something so simple as "hey let's get together for a bonfire" sent me into a violent emotional whirlpool. Next came the OCD demon replaying it again and again in my head, reminding me how insane this behavior is. "See how messed up you are! See how silly you behave! It's a wonder you have any friends at all!"
It took some time to settle down, maybe a couple of hours. It was then, in a more rational state of mind, that I could reflect and realize that it wasn't just one thing that set it off. No, it's been the upheaval that my life has been through since I lost my job back in April. And I reminded myself that my work will never be done, that my demons can never be exiled - only tamed. I've also reminded myself that I have proven that I can tame them, and that even though they may occasionally win a battle here or there like they did last night, they haven't won the war. I will continue to work towards seeing that they do not. Once calmness returns to my life, it will be better again.
In case you missed them, here are links to my prior posts regarding my demons:
Table For One
Fighting The Demons Again
A Stalemate With The Demons
At The Moment